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Former Norwich MP on his life after shock defeat

PUBLISHED: 10:32 21 February 2011 | UPDATED: 14:09 21 February 2011

Former Norwich MP Charles Clarke outside the Forum in Norwich. Speaking to Peter Walsh

Picture: James Bass

Former Norwich MP Charles Clarke outside the Forum in Norwich. Speaking to Peter Walsh Picture: James Bass

Archant Norfolk Photographic © 2011

Exclusive interview with former Norwich MP Charles Clarke.

Charles Clarke biography

Charles Clarke was born the son of the late Sir Richard Clarke and Lady Brenda Clarke in London in September 1950.

He attended Highgate School and King’s College, Cambridge.

He is a former President of the National Union of Students and was a researcher to Neil Kinnock between 1981 and 1983, after which he become the Labour leader’s chief of staff.

From 1980 to 1985 he was a councillor at the London Borough of Hackney, where he served as chair of housing and vice-chair of economic development.

In the 1990s, he was chief executive of a public affairs management consultancy before he moved to Norwich and won the Norwich South parliamentary seat in 1997.

A year later he became a parliamentary under-secretary for education and in 1999 he became minister of state in the Home Office.

He became party chairman and minister without portfolio when Labour held onto power in 2001.

In November 2002 he became education secretary and oversaw the controversial introduction of tuition fees.

He was made home secretary by prime minister Tony Blair in 2004, but was sacked two years later after it emerged that the Home Office was unable to give the whereabouts of all 1,023 foreign prisoners who had been released from jail but not considered for removal from the UK.

Although he was offered alternative posts, Mr Clarke returned to the backbenches and, in 2006, dubbed Gordon Brown a “control freak”.

Last May he lost his Norwich South seat to Liberal Democrat Simon Wright in 2010 by 310 votes.

In September last year it was announced he had been appointed visiting professor to the School of Political, Social and International Studies at the University of East Anglia.

He is married to Carol Pearson with two children and lives in Norwich.

He had served both this fine city and the Labour government with a sense of pride and privilege for more than a decade, not only as an MP for Norwich South but also as education secretary and then home secretary.

And while it might not have been a surprise that after 13 years in power - and with the expenses scandal at the forefront of everyone’s minds - the nation fell out of love with Labour - it was a huge shock that Mr Clarke fell out of favour in Norwich South.

The constituency gained its first new MP since 1997 after Mr Clarke was narrowly beaten by Liberal Democrat Simon Wright. Mr Wright got 13,960 votes compared to Mr Clarke’s 13, 650 - a majority of just 310 votes - and a swing of four per cent.

Mr Clarke, 60, said: “I was shocked and I was very angry. What I miss most was being an MP for Norwich South.

Former Norwich MP Charles Clarke outside the Forum in Norwich.

Picture: James Bass

“I have hugely enjoyed being a Norwich MP and a Norfolk MP and I felt it was possible to make a difference and felt that I had done that in a number of ways and was disappointed I would no longer be able to do that.”

But despite the sadness Mr Clarke feels at not being able to represent Norwich South as an MP, he said he is not so sorry to not be part of any shadow opposition to the coalition government led by David Cameron.

He said: “Being in opposition is a pretty soul destroying. I hadn’t been at ease in the last period of the Labour government and I’m not sure whether I would have stayed had I been asked and had I been elected.”

Mr Clarke said what cost both him and the Labour party dear was a failure to project a positive future for the country.

He said: “I think the main reason we lost was we didn’t offer a vision for the future - we simply said we’re not the Tories which wasn’t good enough.”

Mr Clarke said he was surprised that Ed and not David Miliband won the Labour leadership election. He said: “I think David would’ve been a better leader but am not opposed to Ed. He’s got to really decide how he’s going to make his leadership bite - at the moment there’s still a number of things he’s got to do to make that happen. It’s not enough as an opposition party to simply oppose what the government of the day is doing. I think an opposition party has to offer a positive alternative.”

Although he lost his seat Mr Clarke was not about to bring the curtain down on what he himself has referred to as a “very political life”.

The father-of-two, who was born in London and is a Cambridge graduate, said: “I then had to think what was I going to do for the future. I spent two to three months talking to people about it and developed a portfolio of different activities.”

Mr Clarke is now looking to make his own mark in a number of areas including the academic study of politics, international education, migration and international activities.

His work in academia includes being a visiting professor in politics at the University of East Anglia (UEA), a visiting professor in politics and faith at the University of Lancaster as well as appearing at other occasional academic lectures.

Mr Clarke said he hoped his work with the UEA would close the gap between academic politics and frontline politics and help give students a better understanding of the corridors of power.

Of his work at Lancaster, which is to have the first faculty of Politics, Philosophy and Religion in the country, he said that although he was “not a man of faith” he was a “big believer” in the importance of faith in British life and the need for better understanding.

He has been working with the Open University to offer strategic advice about how they develop overseas learning, while he is also a non-executive director of LJCreate - a Bowthorpe-based provider of innovative e-learning teaching solutions.

Mr Clarke is also currently preparing a pamphlet for the Centre for European Reform dealing with the need for a migration policy for the European Union which is due to be published in the spring.

He said: “These three areas of academic politics, international education and migration are my three main areas of activity. “They represent different aspects of discussion of the ways in which democratic politics needs to develop in a globalising world and I hope to be able to contribute something to this process.”

After graduating from Cambridge Mr Clarke became president of the National Union of Students (NUS). After spending time in Cuba, Mr Clarke returned to work in Hackney where he went onto become a Labour councillor.

By 1980 Mr Clarke had started working in the office of Neil Kinnock MP and organised his successful leadership election campaign in 1983. He was first elected as MP for Norwich South in 1997.

He said: “I was very fortunate to be adopted here in 1996. It was a fantastic thing coming to live in Norfolk and I feel very privileged to have had the chance to do so. People love Norwich, people love Norfolk.

“We couldn’t be happier to live in Norwich and Norfolk. I think what many people say coming to live in Norwich for the first time is they are just very impressed by the warmth of the people and certainly we’ve felt that all the way along.”

In addition to being Norwich South MP Mr Clarke quickly became an imposing figure in frontline politics and was given ministerial responsibilities, first as education secretary, when he oversaw the introduction of tuition fees, and then home secretary, who brought in Safer Neighbourhood Teams.

Although his frontbench career ended abruptly when he was sacked as home secretary in 2006 after it emerged that more than 1,000 foreign prisoners had been released from jail without being considered for deportation, it was a period which helped bring Norwich to the forefront.

Mr Clarke said: “I do think Norwich’s profile was raised and I think I was able to help with that in a variety of different ways - we got a number of investments as a result, big investments in the city which I think have helped our future.”

In the wake of the expenses scandal two former Labour MPs, Eric Illsley and David Chaytor, have been jailed while another, Jim Devine, awaits sentence after being found guilty of wrongdoing and another, Lord Taylor of Warwick, the Tory peer, was found guilty.

Mr Clarke said: “There were some people who were behaving wrongly to the extent they were behaving illegally and it was right that legal action was taken against them.”

Away from politics Mr Clarke said he enjoyed walking, reading - particularly political history and Scandinavian crime novels - and watching his beloved Norwich City - a team which has enjoyed a stunning renaissance under Paul Lambert.

Earlier this month Mr Clarke was inadvertently part of another winning team when the Evening News won front page of the year for its “Defeated Charles Clarke heads for exit” at the EDF Energy East of England Media Awards.

Mr Clarke said: “I have to say it was a great photo and great front page and although I don’t like being reminded of that night, credit to the Evening News for the front page and the award.”

To see more of what Charles Clarke is doing, including public lectures, log onto www.charlesclarke.org.

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